Event Review by Nick Thomas: Russia and Near Abroad

Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict and Vladimir Putin’s continued popularity with the Russian people were among the themes discussed at a recent IBC briefing entitled “Russia and the Near Abroad.”

Part of the Great Decisions series inspired by the Foreign Policy Association’s publication of the same name, the briefing involved a small group of IBC members, Russophiles and Russian speakers and was held at the City Stacks independent bookstore in downtown Denver.

Expert speaker Tom Austin, who has lived and worked in Russia for many years in the mining and construction industries and as a consultant, explained that the title of the briefing was linked to Putin’s fear of people living better in the “near abroad” than they do in Russia itself. For example, he said, this was one of the reasons why Putin had acted like he did regarding Ukraine where he remains convinced the uprising against Russian influence was organized by the United States.

The concept of a strong Russia exercising its regional power, as it has done in Ukraine, resonates with the Russian people as a whole who are wary of capitalistic influences and more interested in security and stability than in new opportunities, Austin said. Many Russians, bruised by the loss of their savings in the early days of post Communist Russia, continue to see capitalism as a poor system for Russia, he added.

Whether Putin was ready to build on his control over domestic issues and develop into more of an international strategist remains to be seen, said Mike Shanley, a Ukraine expert, former Peace Corps volunteer, and CEO and founder of Konektid, a consulting group focused on emerging markets.

“Putin is more of a judo player than a chess player,” Shanley said. “He isn’t really a strategic thinker.”

Austin said that the conflict in Syria, where Russia is allied with the government and its Iranian backers, could allow Putin to develop more of a strategic thrust by exercising pressure on US ally Saudi Arabia for example and deepening its role in the ongoing Sunni and Shia Muslim divide.

Before this final meeting of the series, the IBC had also held briefings on India, Privacy in the Digital Age, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The idea of the seminars is to offer a platform to go a little deeper into current affairs topics in a setting more conducive to such discussion than the IBC’s regular monthly social gatherings.

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